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The Theatreguide.London Review

Gem of the Ocean
Tricycle Theatre 2006

Which would you prefer - the work of a second-rate writer doing his best, or the B-level work of a great writer?

Gem of the Ocean definitely belongs in the second category, which to me is far more enticing than the first. August Wilson is without question in the first rank of American dramatists, with as many top-level plays as O'Neill or Williams, and more than Miller or Albee.

And if this play is not among his very best, that merely means that it is better than most other playwrights can manage.

Part of the ten-play African-American cycle he just managed to finish before his death last year, Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904, which means that half its cast of characters remember slavery, while the younger ones are trying to understand what freedom means in a world of poverty, exploitation and limited opportunity.

Like all Wilson's plays, this one is about the struggle of African-Americans to achieve a sense of personal and racial identity.

Healer-woman Aunt Ester finds it in religion and mysticism, while rambler Solly is quietly committed to a set of ideals that define him.

Among the younger characters, sheriff and slumlord Caesar immerses himself in the white man's laws and values, while Citizen and Black Mary (their names perhaps a wee bit too allegorical) are still struggling to find a way to feel complete within themselves.

And their struggles and interactions matter. Without preaching, without being overtly didactic, Wilson makes us understand - and, more importantly, feel - that history has left these characters incomplete and that the central task of their lives is to make themselves whole.

Like all of Wilson's plays, this one is likely to catch you unexpectedly with passages of heart-stopping eloquence or images of overwhelming power, as when a character who has until then been a bit of comic relief is revealed to have helped dozens of fellow slaves to escape, and what had been a minor prop suddenly resonates with almost holy power.

Unfortunately, the play also has some of Wilson's signature flaws. It runs close to three hours and could have benefited from heavy cutting.

Like Joe Turner and The Piano Lesson, its plot turns on a moment of mysticism - here, one character's Orpheus-like journey to the land of the dead for a forgiveness that will enable him to move forward that is far clearer in the reading, with the aid of Wilson's explanatory stage directions, than it is in performance.

Paulette Randall's direction could have been tighter and brisker, and while every member of the cast - which includes Carmen Munroe (Aunt Ester), Joseph Marcell (Solly) and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Citizen) - has moments of power and beauty, too much of all their performances seems tentative and unsure, as if they're still finding their way into the play.

It is well known that all of August Wilson's plays had long gestation periods, two or three years of productions around America, with the author working on the play after each one, before he declared the text final.

If Gem of the Ocean feels just one more rewrite away from its ideal form, it is unquestionably the work of a great writer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Gem Of The Ocean - Tricycle Theatre 2006


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